LJ’s Lounge: Hip finds Old School
By Eric T. Campbell
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Opening a successful and enduring bar establishment often times involves keeping a finger on the latest trends. Other times it simply means keeping the doors open and letting the so-called trendsetters find you. If you stay open long enough, the cycle of life dictates that you’ll be fashionable even a few times.
Robert Jones celebrated his 60th birthday last week — he and his family have spent 25 of those years being an integral part of the downtown Detroit community and overseeing the operations of LJ’s Lounge.
Located on Michigan Avenue, LJ’s is the old timer in the middle of a resurging business district in Corktown. LJ’s has found itself back on the radar, as evidenced by its recent inclusion on a list of Detroit hot spots cited by Spin magazine.
Judging by Robert’s work ethic, it’s evident that being a part of the bar ‘scene’ is not the first priority. Robert moved to Detroit from Chicago and in 1973 began working in the power train division in General Motors.
After LJ’s first opened he would work his bar shift and follow that up with his morning shift at GM. Robert still works for GM, qualifying him for the title of “one of the hardest working men in Michigan,” according to son, Robert Jr. His expertise has sent him to other GM plants around North America to advise and adjudicate when the assembly line produces a problem transmission.
Sue has been Robert’s partner behind and outside the bar since they met 28 years ago in the Cass Corridor.
“The Evergreen Bar, that’s where we met,” Sue told the Citizen. “After dating for six or seven months we started running the Sweetheart Bar.”
Robert and Sue’s ascent up the tavern hierarchy brought them to the Corktown district and a joint called the Quart Low Bar on Michigan Avenue.
Right after the Tigers won the 1984 World Series they found themselves wanting to own not just the establishment but the building in which it resides. The opportunity presented itself right down the street. Louis Gold, the owner of Gold’s Pawn Shop, owned an old bar he’d been using for storage and he agreed to let Robert and Sue move the liquor license to LJ’s current location between 14th and Wabash. After spending a year renovating, LJ’s opened to find many of their old regulars were waiting with them.
“Most of the people that were here when we first opened up were people that were at our old original bar,” says Sue. “They just came with us.”
Barstool economists say the bar business is one of the few that can survive during those times of serious financial hardship. People may always need a drink, but the scarcity of older bars still open along Michigan between Campus Martius and Livernois is a testament to LJ’s endurance.
Part of their success comes from the fact that LJ’s has never been afraid to host different nights for crowds that run just outside of the mainstream. During the late 80’s, LJ’s hosted a female impersonator night which attracted a crowd that wasn’t necessarily welcome in many Detroit establishments.
They ran a blues night with live music provided by ‘The Driveshaft’. In addition there was a bit more support from the immediate block back then — Gold’s Pawn Shop, Tito’s Taco House, Stella’s Home Cooking, Century Business, the Roosevelt Hotel and the Treeway Apartments — all generated local traffic.
“Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night there was a cover charge,” Sue reminisced. “Because it was so packed in here there was nowhere to sit, walk or stand.”
LJ’s hasn’t quite regained those numbers but the recent revival with the younger crowd may find Robert and Sue charging at the door again. Now you’ll find a DJ most nights, competing with the jukebox for audio supremacy. Weeknights are becoming fair game for interesting themes again, including one of the most popular karaoke stops in the area. LJ’s looks primed to be around for another 25 years.
“They find that most of your little corner bars, you can go in there and get a reasonable drink and it’s not going to cost you an arm and a leg,” says Sue.
You won’t see Robert behind the bar as much as when LJ’s first opened — the bar is maintained primarily by Sue and Robert Jr. But, rest assured, he’s working hard somewhere.
“It was always instilled in us when we were young,” says Robert’s sister Maxine Crenshaw, “you have to work for what you want.”
“Robert would do anything for anybody and not expect anything back,” Sue says. “Especially if it was going to better themselves.”
Happy 60th birthday Robert from your family – Sue, Robert Jr. and Michael and from the extended LJ’s family, too large to mention. LJ’s is located at 2112 Michigan Avenue two blocks west of Rosa Parks.